The "Pink Wash": what has changed for women's human rights and business?
Since the end of 1979, it has been recognised that international human rights instruments cannot be met without addressing gender discrimination. The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) establishes that States have an obligation to guarantee men and women equality in the enjoyment of all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.
CEDAW delves into the consequences of gender inequality in women's rights by making recommendations on the structural changes to achieve cultural transformations that allow for substantive equality.
Although in recent decades we have made progress in identifying and analysing the differentiated and disproportionate impacts on women's human rights by businesses, challenges remain in bringing the new paradigm of transparency and corporate accountability, reflected in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to fruition.
Recommendations have been made to develop impact assessments on human rights, the environment and gender in a participatory manner on extractive industry projects, trade and investment agreements to ensure that they do not have negative consequences for women and girls. In 2010, General Recommendation 28 of CEDAW pinpointed actors responsible for eliminating gender discrimination, including national and international corporations. General Recommendations 28 and 34 then allow progress in the obligations to ensure that women access to remediation after abuses by corporations.
However, despite these advances, the corporate social responsibility model conveys the idea that it is sufficient for companies to make a minimal investment towards social projects to maintain their good reputation. The Guiding Principles are clear in stating that companies are likewise responsible for respecting human rights and guaranteeing comprehensive and participatory mechanisms to remedy the damage when abuses have occurred.
There is a clear path for companies, governments and the United Nations to include the gender perspective in business and human rights issues. Yet, a climate that allows companies to whitewash specific actions focused on women, outside or inside their facilities, remains. This reproduces traditional gender roles hindering the cultural transformation of gender inequality.
In this climate of the so-called "pink wash", the reconciliation between family and work life has been reduced to the opening of breastfeeding rooms for women workers and, in more liberal cases, extending maternity leave to both parents. The commitment to women’s empowerment in most cases translates into messages of self-esteem and self-improvement for working "mothers" and, a few times, of social transformation always associated with the consumption of their products. Women’s human rights are often limited to marketing strategies.
Little is said about the undue influence exerted by employers in the censorship of messages of gender equality and sexual diversity in the media, much less on public policies on gender, health and education. There is no talk about the consequences of the corporate capture of the State with regards to the growing inequality gap between men and women.
It is essential that the business and human rights movement pays more attention to gender impact assessments to better identify and study how corporate abuses affect women and men. If cultural inequalities are exploited and further entrenched by corporations themselves, we need to understand the roles that women and men have assumed in the context of business activities, as well as how motherhood impacts women, to know how to address these differences and how to build greater regulation and greater corporate accountability. We need to strengthen women’s leadership and make sure they have a place at decision-making tables.
It is time to change the paradigm, and to understand that the profound transformation of the system will only be possible if we recognise that substantive equality is key to social and economic justice. There is no democracy without women.
The blog has also been published in Spanish. To read it in its original version, click here.
 A/RES/69/313. A/RES/68/181. Recommendations of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights and of the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. CEDAW General Recommendation 34.